Klemens von Metternich’s Memoirs

This is another book that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled on it in a used bookstore. I was surprised that memoirs by Klemens von Metternich wouldn’t be more talked-about since he’s such a respected figure among the Right, and I went into the book with high expectations, thinking it would be something like a more focused version of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy.

Now, the book is titled The Autobiography: 1773-1815, but it’s not really an autobiography, since Metternich says very little about his personal life, especially once he begins his diplomatic career. It’s not a history, either, as he says explicitly a few times. I called it a memoir above because it’s mostly a collection of anecdotes, conversations, and commentary on events Metternich was involved in. It’s a bit odd stylistically, but perhaps that’s to be expected; Metternich didn’t publish this himself, and doesn’t seem to have intended for all of it to be published. Rather, it’s a collection of three works edited together by his son, Prince Richard Metternich. Two of them blend together seamlessly, but the third, On the History of the Alliances, does stick out noticeably, and is a more traditional historical narrative of the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813-15, though still focusing on the events Metternich personally took part in and avoiding well-known explanations of the battles and broader history.

So, those looking for a self-revealing memoir will be disappointed, since Metternich isn’t self-revealing at all, as will those looking for in-depth diplomatic history or theory. However, the book is still worth reading because one does get a fascinating sketch of some of the most influential people of the era by a man who seemed to know everyone of importance. For example, early in his career Metternich met and got along very well with Emperor Alexander of Russia, who requested that he be sent to St. Petersburg as Austria’s ambassador. When Metternich was sent to France instead, the Emperor took some offense. Metternich says, “The Emperor Alexander did not allow of any graduations in the behaviour of another, because he knew none in his own political conduct, as he was always going backwards and forwards from one extreme to another, in the most opposite directions; he therefore suspected me of being altogether on the side of France and of nourishing great prejudices against Russia.”

Speaking of Emperor Alexander, he was also the one responsible for the post-war Holy Alliance between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Metternich explains that the Emperor had personally met with Austria’s Emperor Francis and given him a document laying out the idea for such an alliance, which Francis shared with Metternich. He writes of Alexander’s original proposal, “No very severe examination was required on my part to see that the paper was nothing more than a philanthropic aspiration clothed in a religious garb, which supplied no material for a treaty between the monarchs, and which contained many phrases that might even have given occasion to religious misconstructions.” King Frederick William, of Prussia, shared Francis and Metternich’s concerns, but after toning down some of the language the three powers did, of course, agree to Alexander’s idea of an alliance, though Metternich points out that the term “Holy Alliance” was never used by them in official correspondence, and was never as formal as outside writers have supposed.

The man who comes across as most interesting, though, is probably Napoleon, with whom Metternich had many conversations over several years. For example, in one conversation in 1810 Napoleon shared some of his ideas of government with Metternich, observing that France “lends itself less to representative forms [of government] than many other countries. In France talent is common enough; but it is only talent, there is nothing beneath it which resembles character, and still less principle. Everyone runs after applause – whether it comes from above or below, no matter: they want to be noticed and applauded.” After this, he explains an idea for a large reform of the French government, and when Metternich asks why he has not already carried this out, he says, “Everything has its season; that for reform has not yet come. I must wait for two or three years, and who knows when the war will end which I am just beginning? That will come after the peace.”

When that peace would come, who knows? As Metternich said to Napoleon in a later conversation, “Your peace is never more than a truce.” My impression of Napoleon is that he’s something like Alexander the Great, and would have marched his army all the way to the Pacific if it were possible.

In 1813, after the disastrous Russian campaign and as Austria was considering renewing their war against France, Napoleon invited Metternich to meet him at Dresden. After telling Napoleon that whether Europe would have peace or war was up to him, Metternich shares Napoleon’s response:

‘Well, now, what do they want me to do?’ said Napoleon, sharply; ‘do they want me to degrade myself? Never! I shall know how to die; but I shall not yield one handbreadth of soil. Your sovereigns, born to the throne, may be beaten twenty times, and still go back to their palaces; that cannot I – the child of fortune; my reign will not outlast the day when I have ceased to be strong, and therefore to be feared. I have committed one great fault in forgetting what this army has cost me – the most splendid army that ever existed. I may defy man, but not the elements; the cold has ruined me… I have lost everything, except honour and the consciousness of what I owe to a brave people who, after such enormous misfortunes have given me fresh proofs of their devotion and their conviction that I alone can rule them…’

Metternich’s judgements of other men is consistently frank, sometimes offering the highest praises, sometimes harsh criticism, and sometimes a mix of both. He says of Prince John Liechtenstein, for instance:

[He was] one of the noblest characters of this sad time. He was a born soldier; he had not the qualities that make a statesman. With overflowing zeal for what is right, gifted with unusual faculties of mind, and a courage proof against every trial; a warm patriot, ready for any sacrifice, but without that balance which is necessary to learn the true value of men and things… Prince John saw in Napoleon only the mere soldier; in this quality he thought he was his equal. He deceived himself, and could not escape from the craft of a man who united in himself the most different qualities in the most extraordinary manner.

Overall, Metternich’s memoirs aren’t a must-read, except for those particularly interested in the period. That’s not to say it isn’t worthwhile, though – I certainly came away from the book with a better understanding of the men involved in the diplomacy around the Napoleonic Wars, and Metternich’s comments are consistently interesting in their own right. Since it’s not really a history, though, I would recommend that one have a basic knowledge of the period beforehand; one needn’t be an expert by any means, but if one doesn’t already know the significance of, say, Austerlitz, or who Emperor Francis or Emperor Alexander are, it may be wise to go through a few encyclopedia articles or a short history before diving in.

If you are looking for a diplomatic history, Kissinger’s Diplomacy, mentioned above, is a good overview of the last few centuries; for Austrian (or rather, the Habsburg monarchy’s) history, Metternich’s career overlaps two books, one by Charles Ingrao covering 1618-1815 and one by A.J.P. Taylor covering 1809-1918.

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